What’s wrong with the Democrats? In the May issue of The American Prospect, Michael Tomasky argued that his fellow Democrats need to develop “a politics of the common good,” the sort of majoritarian thinking that “made liberalism so successful from 1933 to 1966.” Today, Tomasky observed, Democrats lack “a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society.” Ouch. But Tomasky aimed still more rhetorical punches at his own team: Dems “don’t even think in philosophical terms and haven’t for quite some time. … They’ve all been trained to believe—by the media, by their pollsters—that their philosophy is an electoral loser.”
We might add that a philosophy of raising taxes, hiring more bureaucrats and multiculturalists, keeping the borders open, endorsing gay marriage, cutting defense, and putting more trust in international organizations would seem to be a political loser. Yet Republicans are concerned, and rightfully so, about their party and its prospects. The neoconservatives who dominate the White House have put forth policies on Iraq and immigration that have demoralized and divided even hardcore GOPers. And over on Capitol Hill, the majority party is sick with a different malady, incumbentitis.
But what about the Democrats? What might they do if they luck into power, thanks to Republican weakness? They may lack governing skills, but they suffer no lack of publishing skills: they can read about their problems, even if they can’t solve them, and three recent books on the Democrats’ dilemma stand out because of their historical scope. While all three authors are united in their desire to help the party regain a salable political platform, they conveniently divide among them the last 100 years of their party’s history, its rise and fall, each volume covering a third of the century.
Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, chronicling the life of William Jennings Bryan, reminds Democrats that they once routinely won the votes of Bible Belters, even prior to the New Deal “golden age.” Then Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, focusing on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Hundred Days” in 1933, writes about that golden age, an era when Democrats were comfortably majoritarian. And completing the rise-and-fall cycle, Joe Klein of Time chronicles the subsequent decline of the Democrats, which he blames mainly on the malpractice of political consultants.
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Beginning with his title, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, Kazin signals to Democrats that he wants them to try something new—or, more precisely, something old. Bryan had been a two-term Congressman from Nebraska when he electrified the 1896 Democratic convention, held in Chicago, with his famous anti-gold-standard speech: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The next day, the 36-year-old, sometimes dubbed “The Boy Orator of the Platte,” won the nomination, although he was defeated in November by Republican William McKinley. But Bryan was more than just a candidate, he was a movement; his twin motivations were evangelical Christianity and progressive economics. According to his beliefs—and the beliefs of the many millions who revered “The Great Commoner”—Christ and His Social Gospel were calling upon America to step up anti-trust enforcement, enact wage-and-hour laws, and institute an income tax. A tireless orator, Bryan stumped the country, gaining momentum for his policies, even as he was thwarted in further bids for political office. He lost the presidency twice more, in 1900 and 1908, but he had the satisfaction of seeing much of his progressive agenda enacted, including by such Republicans as Theodore Roosevelt.
Yet while Bryan was a strong proponent of federal power in domestic matters, he was mostly skeptical of Washington’s efforts in the international arena. Historian Kazin, mindful of his audience in 2006, is careful to note that while Bryan supported the Spanish-American War in the wake of the USS Maine explosion, he opposed the larger project of American imperialism in the Philippines. And after being appointed as secretary of state in 1913, he resigned two years later, protesting the march toward world war in Europe.
But for all that, Bryan is probably best remembered for events at the very end of his life. In 1925, serving as guest prosecutor for the Scopes “Monkey” trial in Dayton, Tennessee—which put Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the courtroom dock—he won the legal battle, gaining a nominal conviction of high school science teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution. Yet Bryan died just five days after the trial ended.
Moreover, he lost the historical war of memory and reputation. Among those covering the trial was H.L. Mencken, who mocked Bryan during the courtroom proceedings and who penned a scathing obituary: “He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.” Mencken’s harsh judgment carried the day—and the decades to come, as anyone who has seen “Inherit the Wind” can attest.
Mencken was a conservative, of course, albeit a secular conservative with great hostility to religion. But as Kazin notes, with much lament, Bryan had already been split away from his natural allies on the Left even before the Scopes Trial. Back in 1916, journalist John Reed—yet to publish his famous pro-Bolshevik book, Ten Days That Shook The World—published a profile of Bryan for Collier’s Weekly, demonstrating the emerging chasm between the Great Commoner’s old-style religious liberalism and the new style of secular leftism. In Kazin’s telling, Reed “reduced Bryan to little more than a sideshow for yokels and Bible-thumpers, a man whose time had decisively passed.”
Indeed, Reed’s article, Kazin adds, “illustrated a key transition in the history of the American left.” The journalist Reed and the politician Bryan agreed on most economic issues, and yet the divide on matters “literary, philosophical, and sexual” was simply too deep. In other words, Reed’s enthusiasm for lefty economic justice yielded to his far greater enthusiasm for avant-garde bohemian living. Thus the split between the Old Left (socially conservative, even puritanical) and the New Left (socially libertarian, even at the expense of class consciousness)—which would define the politics of the later 20th century—was visible even before the Russian Revolution.
In his own lifetime, Bryan synthesized social conservatism and economic liberalism. And while his views on race—he simply didn’t include blacks in his egalitarian vision—are unacceptable to all parties today, other views, according to Kazin, merit reconsideration. Bryan’s faith in Biblical inerrancy, for example, was couched in political as well as theological terms; Bryan worried that human affection—“the politics of the common good”—would be undone if man realized that he was here on earth because of Darwinian randomness, as opposed to Divine plan: “Christians who have allowed themselves to be deceived into believing that evolution is a beneficent, or even a rational, process have been associating with those who either do not understand its implications or dare not avow their knowledge of these implications.” And so the Social Gospel would be defeated by Social Darwinism, as well as the infinitely crueler ideologies emerging from Europe and Asia toward the end of Bryan’s life.
In Kazin’s sympathetic account, the life of Bryan looks appealing indeed; the author lauds his subject’s “sincerity, warmth, and passion for a better world,” further praising the man who epitomized “the yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives.” Parenthetically, of course, we might ask of contemporary Democrats: does the vision of ordinary people leading virtuous lives sound like the party’s platform today? Are today’s Democrats notable for their non-elitism and homespunnery?
Some might say that Kazin’s description of Democratic virtues in the Bryan era sounds more like Republican ideals today. And that might explain why the Democratic voters of yesterday are the Republican voters of today. If one were to look at an electoral college map of Bryan’s elections, one would see that the red-blue pattern is virtually the mirror image of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections; Bryan the Democrat swept the South and most of the Midwest and West, exactly what Bush the Republican did a century a later. One painful difference for today’s Democrats: population shifts have radically adjusted electoral weight. When Bryan won Florida for the third time in 1908, the Sunshine State possessed a total of five electoral votes. When Bush carried Florida for the second time in 2004, the state gave him 27 electoral votes.
Yet modern Democrats seem to have forgotten that they once owned the allegiance of “the Solid South.” Here’s DNC chairman Howard Dean, a Vermonter, explaining it to The New Yorker: “The Democratic Party was built on four pillars—the Roosevelt intellectuals, the Catholic Church, labor unions, and African-Americans.” In other words, white Protestant Southern Democrats such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson have been tossed down the memory hole. One suspects that Southerners have noticed this disrespect, resolving to return it in kind.
And on a deeper spiritual level, Kazin concludes, it was a mistake for Democrats to “quarantine the sacred” out of politics. No wonder Bryan and his beliefs have disappeared from not only the Democratic tradition but even from the Democrats’ strategic vision.
The Left and the Democrats, influenced by Marxism over the last century, have absorbed much of the Marxist-materialistic worldview into their own worldview. All liberal intellectuals know that Marx declared religion to be the “opiate of the masses,” but perhaps they don’t know that in that same passage, from his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx also reminded readers that religion is “the heart of a heartless world.” And that’s where Bryan might come in handy, even for atheists. America is prospering, but many of its citizens are suffering as the economy continues its endless churn of creative destruction. In a globalized America, there are many Forgotten Men. Surely many of these folks would appreciate a dollop of Bryanite Christian compassion in their politics, if the Democrats could bring themselves to offer it.
Can today’s Democrats come to grips with an ideology that once borrowed equally, as Kazin puts it, from Jefferson and Jesus? Can they put aside decades of increasing hostility to “religion in politics”? Will their desire for victory finally force them to make the changes needed to regain the trust of Bryan-Bush voters?
Those questions, and that challenge, animated Kazin to write his book. And while some Democrats, such as Jim Wallis, who last year published God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, seem eager to embrace a neo-Bryanite message, most Democrats still prefer to shy away from Bible-minded Bryanism—even if that means shying away from victory.
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Indeed, it’s easier, and more fun, simply to replay past victories—and that’s what Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope does, recapturing that happy-days-were-here-way-back-when spirit. Alter’s chronicle, perhaps surprisingly, gives little credit to Bryan and his political tradition, even though Herbert Hoover—an expert witness, albeit a hostile one—once snarled that the New Deal was “Bryanism under new words and methods.”
The Defining Moment dwells instead on the life and times of Northerner Franklin Roosevelt. Its narrow-focus title notwithstanding, the book effectively doubles as a breezy biography, written in an anecdote-rich journalistic style. And since, as Alter reminds us, a quarter of American workers were unemployed in 1932, FDR had little need to concern himself with religious issues. So FDR, as chronicled by his latest biographer-admirer, stuck mainly to politics and economics. And in this same chronicle, the 32nd president is made out to be an antonym of the 43rd president.
Alter has found an unused sentence in a draft of a Roosevelt speech scheduled for Inauguration Day—a sentence that, if it had been uttered, might have given the new commander in chief a claim for emergency authority. In Alter’s breathless telling, this sentence was “dictator talk—an explicit power grab.” But of course, FDR never said anything of the sort, and so historians reviewing The Defining Moment don’t seem too impressed by this “scoop.” Yet Alter uses this might-have-been wording to illustrate his basic thesis: that Roosevelt was a moderate and prudential president.
Yet at the same time, Alter paints FDR as consciously Machiavellian, as distinctly un-Bryan-like. To put it another way, Alter portrays his subject as a figure who was great in his determination to use the presidency to help America, even if he wasn’t such a nice person to deal with. So we have a flawed person who was nonetheless a good president—what other more recent Democrat could Alter be Hope-ing that we think of?
As for the policy substance of the New Deal, Alter is too much a modern market-oriented liberal to be entirely in tune with the statist thrust of FDR’s agenda. So he uses the policy debates of the ’30s to argue that Roosevelt was first and foremost a problem-solver—once again, in sharp contrast to George W. Bush. To help make that point, Alter contrasts the two men’s biographies, comparing their various adversities.
He reminds us that Bush drank too much in his 30s, recovering through willpower and self-discipline, so here’s his take: “But when discipline hardens into dogma, a president loses the suppleness to respond to problems. Bush’s adherence to routine—a frequent attribute of those who have beaten substance abuse problems—may have slowed his adjustment to new circumstances.” So Bush, in his stubborn non-adaptability, can be compared to Herbert Hoover, which puts him at about rock bottom in the minds of Democrats. By contrast, Roosevelt, in Alter’s account, suffering from illness, learned compassion as a result; in his perpetual search for physical improvement, FDR discovered the value of “bold, persistent experimentation,” which he then applied to politics. Starkly differentiating the two presidents, Alter lauds Roosevelt for having “turned flexibility into a principle.”
Any linkage between FDR and, say, Bill Clinton is probably not to be rejected by Alter or his Democratic audience. And it seems to be working: the liberal website Buzzflash.com enthuses, “We like The Defining Moment, because it is great to recall a time of hope , , . . It’s nice to remember when you could have pride in your government.”
In fact, most Americans on this side of extreme libertarianism want to take pride in their government—they want things to work. So Alter’s competence-not-ideology argument resonates with more than just neo-New Dealers. The bottom line is that Roosevelt energetically tackled domestic problems; if FDR could establish the Civilian Conservation Corps in just four months, Alter asks, why has it taken Bush more than four years to secure U.S. ports or fix the FBI’s computer system? And don’t get Alter started about Katrina or what that fiasco says about the efficacy of the federal government.
Still, Alter has chosen an easy subject to write about; he picked the most popular Democrat in U.S. history, then ladled on yet more praise. By contrast, Kazin’s Democrat was in the minority in his time, holding views that are acceptable today to an even smaller minority of top Democrats. Alter writes about his party after its ship had come in, thanks to the Depression; the changes that FDR campaigned for and implemented were controversial, but they were immediately popular with the majority—which explains why the Democratic candidate was elected with an 18-point margin in his first presidential contest and re-elected by a 24-point margin, the greatest ever for a Democrat in U.S. history.
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Joe Klein’s task might seem close to that of Kazin; his book, Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid, could just as easily be entitled, Democrats Lost. But from a Democratic point of view, Klein actually has the most unpleasant task of the three authors: Kazin’s Democrats were in the minority, but their economic ideas were soon to be in the ascendancy; Alter’s Democrats were in the majority, and their ideas were actually put into law. By contrast, Klein is left to chronicle the descent of the party. Nobody thinks that most Americans will gravitate toward the idea of, say, Hillary Clinton or Al Gore pulling the big levers of the U.S. economy. If the Democrats win the White House next, the cause will be dissatisfaction with the ins, not enthusiasm for the outs.
The obvious problem with the outs is that they and their ideas are not popular. But Klein, although he comes close, can’t quite bring himself to say it that bluntly. Instead, he argues that the Democrats, a basically good bunch, have been given bad advice by their advisers—the consultants and handlers.
Klein begins his book in a safe and high place for Democrats, celebrating the life of Robert F. Kennedy, whom he regards as the last serious presidential candidate not wrapped in a cocoon of consultancy. Klein recounts RFK’s speech to a mostly black crowd in Indianapolis the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Two months before his own murder, Kennedy delivered the sad news of King’s death to the audience, then quoted from the poet Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the human heart. Until … in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
A bleakly beautiful sentiment, and a bleakly beautiful moment, and Klein uses it for all it’s worth to illustrate RFK’s greatness as a solitary poet-politician, uncorrupted by the spin-doctoring consultant-ocracy. Well, maybe. Everyone knows that the Kennedy family always had the glamour as well as the cash to attract the best staff—what were those hirelings being used for? Although Klein quotes several Kennedy aides who were with RFK that night, the author doesn’t entertain the possibility that maybe those aides were acting as—gasp!—handlers and consultants. Perhaps Adam Walinsky, for example, cooked up the memorable Aeschylus quote, even if the ex-speechwriter now prefers to tell Klein that Kennedy fished the words out of his own pocket.
But let’s give liberal Baby Boomers a pass from critical scrutiny when it comes to Bobby, especially since Klein is so enjoyably merciless in his accounting of post-1968 Democrats. Klein’s book is theoretically a look at the effect of consultants on both parties—he even includes a reference or two to me, in my Bush 41 days—and yet the bulk of the volume concerns the deleterious effect of consultants on the Democrats.
Here Klein is on sturdy footing, since he has been an on-the-ground chronicler of all the presidential contests beginning with 1972. And while much of the book is obviously a core-dump of articles and notes from three-and-a-half decades of reporting, his focus on the consultants provides a wonderful window into the changes in U.S. elections during that time. Yet for all the rich reportorial detail he provides, the even larger panoramic reality is this: Republicans have won seven of the last ten presidential elections—and that might be a sign that a force even bigger than consultants is moving American politics.
Plenty of Democrats saw the danger as it arose. Pat Caddell, for example, was once the hottest consultant around —in part because he was able to warn his big clients, George McGovern and then Jimmy Carter, of changes he had first observed as a teenager growing up in northern Florida in the late ’60s. In that part of the country, he noted, working-class Democrats, folks who had been loyal to the party of Bryan and FDR, were falling away. As Klein tells it, “Caddell had begun his quest: to find a way to speak to those alienated Southern populists, to lure them back to the Democratic Party despite their essential cultural conservatism.” Caddell was versed in all the new skills of polling and political symbolism, yet even so, his vote-quest on behalf of McGovern in 1972 proved difficult. Vote-questing was easier for Caddell and Carter in 1976. In 1980 it grew more difficult once again.
On many occasions, Klein comes perilously close to conceding that the Republicans won their elections not because of their consultants but because they were right on the issues. In describing Ronald Reagan, Klein observes, “he was right about the need for welfare reform and about the evilness of the [Soviet] empire.” Well, if Reagan was right, where does that leave the Democrats, who so furiously opposed everything Reagan tried to do? Recalling a 1981 article of his in Rolling Stone, Klein compares the Democrats to “happy brontosauruses in a turgid pool of self-congratulatory idealism.” No wonder the Democrats hired consultants and then hired more consultants—they needed them. It was bad enough that “the Democrats were losing their working-class base,” as Klein recounts, but even worse, they were losing their media base.
So by the 2000 campaign, Democrats were in full consultant-heavy frenzy. Klein draws out some lively memories of that year. Gore-Lieberman campaign manager Donna Brazile, for instance, recalls the busywork of all the consultants on her payroll: “They had focus groups three or four times a week. They had sixteen categories for white women.” But Gore wanted constant data-fixes: “He was on the phone with the pollsters every five minutes.” And in 2004, the John Kerry presidential campaign was no better; Klein dismisses chief guru Bob Shrum as “an ancient sort: a medieval courtier, a flatterer” who worked through Kerry’s wife to hatchet campaign rivals.
And yet we might ask: what was Kerry supposed to do? Was Kerry supposed to campaign for the White House as the man who had blanket-trashed Americans serving in Vietnam as “war criminals” back in 1971? Was that a good sell? Or was he supposed to seek the White House on the basis of his undistinguished record in the Senate? Or how about his voting record in 2003, when National Journal, the prestigious and soberly low-key weekly, rated him as the most liberal senator—port, even, of Teddy Kennedy? Would that have been a good plan? Kerry had little choice but to run a campaign that sought to cobble together “Shrumian platitudes,” as Klein calls them, such as “health care is a right not a privilege.” And it almost worked; the ’04 election was one of the closest in U.S. history.
But while Klein’s critique of consultants is appropriately and amusingly scathing, we might conclude that any hopeful, especially a Democrat, reading Klein’s proposed solution is likely to exclaim, “Get me a consultant!” The author wants candidates who are gutsy enough to endorse “at least one idea, or program, that has less than 40 percent support in the polls.” Well, in truth, both parties support lots of programs that cater to special interests, which command the support of just a few motivated voters.
But it would appear, nevertheless, that the Democrats have more minoritarian platform planks than the Republicans. In a conservative America, a basically liberal party is undoubtedly well advised to hide its true nature from the voters. That’s why the Democrats rely on consultants: because they need all the help they can get trying to sell bicoastal blue-state ideology to the red-state heartland. As Michael Tomasky put it, Democrats have been trained—by electoral experience, many would say—to think that their basic ideology, much of it descended from the New Deal, is a political loser nowadays.
Klein, a self-described moderate, clearly understands the Democrats’ real problem, but can’t quite bring himself to say it. The real problem is that the party is still well to the left of the country; Democrats have an ideology that dare not speak its name, so it speaks instead in Shrumian platitudes.
As for Alter, yes, it was more fun to be a Democrat 70 years ago, when the Democrats were with the country.
But potentially the most powerful of these three works is Kazin’s. His call for a Bryanite Great Awakening is the sort of paradigm shift that could make red states blue. But Dems would have to find candidates who could embody the basic cultural conservatism of the American people, including their religiosity, as Carter and Bill Clinton were able to do on their way to the White House. Carter, in particular, has since been vocal in telling fellow Democrats that they have to move back to the center on abortion.
Of course, the consultant mindset dies hard among liberals, perhaps because they know the unreconstructed truth about their ilk. Steven Waldman, former Newsweek reporter turned editor of Beliefnet.com, wrote a piece advising the Democrats how to win back the Christian vote, in which he offered this bit of help: “To frame abortion for this group, Democrats at least need to pretend that they want to reduce the number of abortions.” Waldman later postscripted that he was kidding when he advised the Democrats to lie about their position—he advises the Democrats to be sincere. Meanwhile, one of the few areas where the Bush Republicans unmistakably put points on the board is in the appointment of conservative federal judges.
So what will happen if the Democrats come back to power without doing any soul-searching, let alone soul-rediscovering? How will Democrats behave if they are restored without deserving restoration? Right now, Bush makes the Democrats look good. But if the same-old-same-old Democrats are left to shine on their own, based on their own merits—quick, what’s the Democratic position on Iraq? on immigration? on the ACLU vs. Christianity?—then the next Republican comeback might not be far away, and that will be a heckuva story for the Republicans, even if most of the books are still likely to be written about the Democrats.
James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He served in the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.